Let me start off by saying how much I loved director Julian Schnabel’s (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Basquiat) latest film, At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh. Unlike some films based on a real person or subject matter, Schnabel has crafted an impressionistic version of Van Gogh’s story, allowing Dafoe to explore the troubled painter’s last days using a mixture of his actual letters and moments that are invented. While I’ve seen many portrayals of Van Gogh over the years, I believe Dafoe has delivered the definitive version, allowing the viewer to get a glimpse inside his troubled mind. In a year of amazing performances, Dafoe is near the top. At Eternity’s Gate also stars Mads Mikkelsen, Emmanuelle Seigner, Amira Casar, Niels Arestrup, and Oscar Isaac.
With the film arriving in theaters this weekend, I recently sat down with Willem Dafoe for an exclusive interview. He talked about what it’s like working with a director who is also a painter, what surprised him to learn about van Gogh, what it was like learning to paint for the film, working with Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin, when he realized this was going to be such a special film, filming in some of the real locations where van Gogh actually painted, memorable moments from filming, and a lot more.
Check out what Willem Dafoe had to say below.
Collider: You’ve been talking all day about At Eternity’s Gate, so I want to start with two other questions first. What was it like after Fault In Our Stars, were teenage girls ever angry with you on the street?
WILLEM DAFOE: Ah, that’s a good question. No. I think they were mostly just happy to see a character from that movie. They were so in love that movie, that they didn’t judge him. They were all accepting.
Secondly, I absolutely love John Wick. When you were making it, did you have any inkling that this was going to be such a huge movie, and to mean so much to so many people?
DAFOE: I didn’t because the basic story is quite simple. It was really the kind of the handling, so you couldn’t anticipate that, you know? No, I had no idea. It was good. It was in the handling and the direction and being able to reimagine New York in a slightly different way. Who would have thought that was possible?
I agree with that. Let’s jump into why I get to talk to you today; I’m a big fan of director Julian Schnabel’s work. You’ve worked with him a number of times.
DAFOE: In small ways, yeah. And happily.
So, talk a little bit about how he has changed as a filmmaker since Basquiat, or has he changed? Because that was his first movie, and now he’s such a more accomplished filmmaker …
DAFOE: Yeah, of course he has. He’s matured. I mean, this is a big leap. I mean Basquiat, yeah, it’s a beautiful film in the respect that it really captured something. It’s like a beautiful fairy tale for me because I was in New York in those days. I don’t know what to say, except I think this is his most mature work. And most brave.
Well, it’s interesting because there are going to be many people who don’t realize he’s a painter. And he’s-
DAFOE: Okay, fair enough. I’ve, yeah, okay.
You know what I mean? There are going to be people that don’t realize he’s a painter and it’s amazing to have a painter making a movie about a painter.
I take it for granted when I was watching it, I know Julian’s a painter, but many people won’t.
DAFOE: It’s true, it’s true.
What do you think he is able to show on screen, because he is a gifted artist?
DAFOE: Well, there’s a lot of painting on screen. And it’s not jive. You really see what he’s talking about. It’s not like illustrating, but often the things he’s talking about, you see … in a very concrete way. That’s why it was important for me to learn how to paint and that’s why it was important for me to paint in the movie. There’s no stunt painter. We’re not cutting away. I’m painting.
So, when you’re hearing him and Gauguin talking about different ways of approaching painting, you see it. Also, you start to understand some of the very complicated, very philosophical things that van Gogh talked about in terms of nature and god and painting. You see it, you know? Basically, Julian understands some of these challenges and some of these difficulties.
I know you must have done a ton of research, so what were some of the things that you took away from learning about him that really captured your imagination or inspired you?
DAFOE: I learned many things of course, I think of so many things because there’s such richness; the letters, the biographies, the paintings. There’s so much to go with. I think the biggest surprise was I didn’t realize so much about his early life and how much it was colored by his father being a pastor, and all his life he was trying to reconcile or work out this spiritual impulse. That took the shape of service, that he had something to offer, he had to contribute something. That was very strong in his letters. Also, he was a very compassionate person.
He was, socially, totally a clod. He talked about it a lot. And people talked about it. He was a very difficult guy. But he talks very beautifully about working class people. Poor people, the beauty of … he said some wild things about how there could be purity of the heart with the defilement of the body. He was past dualistic thinking in a lot of ways; he was a free thinker.
He also saw the world in such a unique way. I also didn’t realize he painted 75 paintings or 80 paintings in like 75 days …
DAFOE: Yeah, like one a day, practically.
Let me go backwards. You learned how to paint?
Did you keep with it after film making? Is this something you discovered in yourself?
DAFOE: No, it’s like so many things, you know? It’s like, what makes me a painter is that situation. And then once you take away those things, I’ve got to work really hard to sustain that. It’s like any character. The character goes away when the circumstances go away. A character is revealed through applying yourself to circumstances. And then he is born. You can’t sustain that without the circumstances.
Of course, personally, I could go out and get some paints, but my life is far too nomadic. I’ve been doing other projects and it’s like … this is a very, very dear experience to me, and I loved to paint. It made me understand the things he’d say about, “I’d stop thinking when I paint,” or “painting is a meditation.” Many things. It connected him to the swirl of the rise and fall of all things. I really see differently because of doing this movie. And I don’t mean just with my eyes, I mean how I look at things.
DAFOE: I’m spinning out.
Well, I was going to say, you obviously paint on film. In those moments, are you more nervous than typical on set because you’re doing something that you’re not used to?
DAFOE: No, because I’ve got … I’m so overwhelmed by the task. That’s the secret of performing. Overwhelm yourself with such a challenge that you can’t worry about it. No, I’m serious. That’s why I cling to learning how to do things. That’s the point of concentration. Then you’re no worried about what’s coming off you. You’re really doing something. There’s a truth to it, because you really are doing it.
Good or bad, I’ve always felt most comfortable with concentrating on the quality of the engagement, and then it’s a lot of other people’s work to frame it. If you worry about too much of that, you become self-conscious, and it takes you away from the quality of the engagement. But if you have a strong action to do, you lose yourself. Willem’s not there anymore. Actors aren’t there anymore. You’re doing something and it’s being recorded. That’s the greatest possibility that you’ll surprise yourself and that there will be some truth in what you’re doing. Because you’re not steering it. Other forces are steering it and you are inviting them to take you over.
When I interviewed Joaquin Phoenix, he told me that his best day on set is when he arrives in the morning and they call lunch and he doesn’t even realize what’s been going on. He’s just disappeared into the role.
DAFOE: That sounds wacky! Do I sound that wacky? No, no. He’s a good actor. He’s a very good actor.
It’s interesting though because he’s disappearing into it. Where he is not thinking about what’s going on.
DAFOE: But it’s not, it’s misunderstood as like a method thing. You’re so busy doing stuff. It’s like, everybody knows this. If you play sports, or if you play music, or do something that engages you in a full way that you forget yourself. And if you set yourself up to do that in a way that you can really go deep then, yeah. You are that person.